Ahead of the curve
UNDP, UNICEF and The City of Skopje establish a first-of-its-kind public space for innovation in biotechnology.
Co-authored by Armen Grigoryan, UNDP Resident Representative for North Macedonia, Patrizia DiGiovanni, UNICEF Representative for North Macedonia, and Danela Arsovska, Mayor of the City of Skopje, North Macedonia
From earthquakes to floods and air pollution, the City of Skopje, North Macedonia, has a long history of dealing with environmental challenges. As the city’s population has increased, waste management urgently requires focused attention, robust solutions and sparks of innovation.
To date, Skopje’s citizens have shown remarkable resilience in dealing with these challenges while driving demand for action. The City of Skopje was among the first in the country to develop a Local Environmental Action Plan and an Air Quality Plan, and has supported numerous environmental activities in schools and large communities.
The city has also invested heavily in expanding public parks, subsidizing energy efficiency and introducing stronger communal inspections, to name a few robust solutions proposed. And now, local experts in education, science, entrepreneurship and academia, alongside the private sector, UNDP and UNICEF have joined forces to establish a public BioHacking Laboratory, the first of its kind in the country.
Presently, bio-waste accounts for 45% of all waste produced in the country. Most of that waste – approximately 95% – ends up in open landfills and dumpsites, emitting greenhouse gases and contributing to a range of environmental challenges for the local communities.
The BioHacking Laboratory project was selected among 120 projects supported by the 2021 Green Shark Challenge, a joint UNDP and UNICEF global competition focused on environmental sustainability. The BioHacking Laboratory focuses on reusing and repurposing bio-waste as an entry point to create entrepreneurial opportunities through citizen science while supporting the delivery of science-based educational programmes in schools.
The laboratory, located in the Marie Curie secondary vocational school in Skopje, is a go-to venue for extracurricular activities, clubs and project-based learning in biology and chemistry for primary education and secondary school students. The new public space also enables entrepreneurs and innovators to form new businesses, create employment, drive economic development and foster opportunities for growth out of bio-waste under three distinct pillars:
- innovation and entrepreneurship
- education and school engagement
- public demand.
Fostering creativity and education
Much as computer programing became accessible to the general public in the 1970s, the BioHacking Laboratory initiative is aligned with national priorities and action plans and aims to make biotechnology science accessible to all. Open laboratories of this kind are referred to as biohacking laboratories and are open to the general public, including students, biotechnology start-ups and science enthusiasts in need of a place to learn, discover or experiment on science and technology-based projects.
The lab launched the first challenge for startups working with biotechnologies to bring new talent into the biohacking laboratory. The closing event of the challenge, Demo Day, included the secretary of the City of Skopje and Marina Walter, the Deputy Director of the UNDP Regional Bureau for Europe and the CIS, along with participants representing over 20 organizations, embassies, private companies and donor organizations.
In collaboration with the National Vocational Education and Training Center (VET), the lab worked with over 40 teachers to deliver two of eight planned regional science caravans. The caravans will travel to VET schools that have courses in chemistry and technology and/or agriculture and veterinary sciences. Teachers will deliver preparatory lectures and experiments and set up bio-waste collection points.Then, in close collaboration with the lead scientists and using the laboratory’s mobile equipment, this bio-waste will be transformed and tested into a useful and viable product.
Likewise, scientists affiliated with the lab are currently working with 30 companies to transform their bio-waste into viable products. The laboratory recently held its first teacher training, set-up bio-waste collection points, and seven regional two-day courses in chemistry and technology, agriculture and veterinary science are planned.
The collaborative efforts of the City of Skopje, UNDP, and UNICEF have sparked innovative solutions to bio-waste and reignited a collective appetite for experimentation. The opportunities for co-creation are abundant, and these new initiatives hold immense potential. While established strategies are valuable, breakthrough solutions for environmental challenges require bold innovation. The BioHacking Laboratory proudly fosters co-creative approaches that diverge from the norm and keep us ahead of the curve as we forge a brighter, more sustainable future for all.